Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lighthouse Keepers

Ocracoke Lighthouse was put into service in 1823. It is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina. A dozen men have served as Keepers of the Ocracoke Light.

The keeper was responsible for lighting the lamp at sunset, ensuring that it remained lit throughout the night, and extinguishing it at sunrise. The lamp needed to be filled with fuel daily, and the wick trimmed regularly. The Fresnel lens and lantern room windows had to be cleaned and polished every morning. Keepers were required to shine and polish all of the brass, sweep the floors and stairs, and clean tower windows and sills as needed. They also cleaned, painted, and repaired all of the buildings, including the keeper's dwelling, chimneys, privies, outbuildings, and the tower itself. In addition, keepers were required to maintain all mechanical equipment, weed walkways, paint and maintain the fence, and see that the grounds were presentable. They kept a log book, recorded weather readings, and kept an inventory of all equipment. Keepers were forbidden to leave the light station without permission, and were considered to be on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They even provided visitors with tours of the lighthouse as needed.

Lighthouse Keeper was a formidable job. Below are the Keepers of the Ocracoke Light, all highly skilled and dedicated public servants:
  • Joshua Taylor (or Tayloe), 1823-1829 (his title was Collector [of Customs] & Superintendent of Lighthouse)
  • Anson Harker, 1829-1846 (first person of record listed as Keeper; Joshua Taylor is listed as Superintendent)
  • John Harker, 1847-1853 (probably Anson Harker's son)
  • Thomas Styron, 1853-1860
  • William J. Gaskill, 1860-1862
  • Enoch Ellis Howard 1862-1897 (the longest serving Keeper; he died in office)
  • J. Wilson Gillikin 1897-1898
  • Tillman F. Smith 1898-1910
  • A.B. Hooper 1910-1912
  • Leon Wesley Austin 1912-1929
  • Joseph Merritt Burrus 1929-1946 (the beacon was electrified in 1929)
  • Clyde Farrow 1946-1954 (the last Keeper of the Ocracoke light; the beacon was fully automated in 1954)
Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of Ocracoke and the "Lost" Colony. You can read it here:


  1. Anonymous9:31 AM

    what did the light keepers use to clean the lens ? and what was used to polish the brass ? what condition are these items in today -- are these tasks still performed? Did you say the light house is open to the public now?

  2. Anonymous9:41 AM

    If a light keeper's house/residence was built is it still standing? What does the interior look like. The light keepers house for Bodie island looks like a very large family could he quite comfortable. Were the light keeps political appointments?

  3. Anon 9:31 & 9:41 -- I do not know the answers to most of your questions (how do you like that for honesty?). The lighthouse property is now owned by the National Park Service, but the US Coast Guard is responsible for the maintenance of the light, which is still considered an aid to navigation. I do not know if NPS employees or Coast Guardsmen keep the brass polished or the Fresnel lens cleaned regularly.

    Major historically accurate repairs were made to the lighthouse, both the interior and exterior, just a couple of years ago.

    The lighthouse is sometimes open for the public to step inside on the ground floor. It is never open to the public for climbing because of the structure's age and other factors.

    The keeper's quarters are adjacent to the lighthouse and outbuildings. The keeper's house is now used as NPS housing. I have not been inside for a number of years, so I do not know what it looks like now.

    I do not know if keepers were political appointments.

    Perhaps one of our readers can answer these questions.

  4. Anonymous3:51 PM

    How refreshing..."I do not know"...4 little words I wish I had heard each time I asked for directions and then got lost.
    We all know someone who answers any question regardless of their knowledge of the subject. I have a niece who would give directions to the nearest spaghetti farm if asked. Her nickname is Gracie, the Encyclopedia of Misinformation.

  5. Anonymous12:59 AM

    well the magic answer box (my apple lap top) with the help of a search engine the results of my query lighthouse keeper political appointment-- thus the answer is yes and the Concord MD lighthouse is all white too oddly resembling the OI LH any whoo-- I thought all lighthouses needed to be if painted be different colors but at night it would not matter what color it was

  6. Anonymous3:53 AM

    I find it interesting to note that the name John Harker (keeper 1847-1853) suggests the fictional character Jonathan Harker, a protagonist from Bram Stoker's famed novel "Dracula." Adds a whole new dimension to thoughts of a solitary light keeper tending a remote, lonely building; midnight walks along sandy lanes; and Ocracoke ghost tours.

    Hmm...seems the seeds of a story there.

    Always interesting, Philip.